Set against a steep, snowy mountain and a cerulean sky, Ed Ruscha’s To the Nth Degree is a striking representation of the artist’s distinctive juxtapositions of language and image. The present work is a superb example of Ruscha’s critically acclaimed mountain paintings, highlighted at the recent Hayward Gallery exhibition Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting in London. Deftly splitting meaning from form, the viewer is encouraged to reconsider an automatic acceptance of meaning tied to proximity, and explore the potential of language supported by the image.
Ruscha’s breathtaking vistas are part photograph and part road sign. Following his move to Los Angeles in 1956, he worked as a sign painter, a graphic designer, and an assistant to an art book publisher. Influenced by the printed text that filled his days, as well as the word games of Marcel Duchamp, Ruscha formed a unique visual language that is simultaneously commercial and formally sophisticated. His interest in commercial signage and logos is elevated to a cinematic art form in the mountain series of the early 2000s. “If I’m influenced by movies, it’s from way underneath, not just on the surface. A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words. In a way they’re words in front of the old Paramount Studios mountain [. . .] The backgrounds are of no particular character. They’re just meant to support the drama, like the ‘Hollywood’ sign being held up by sticks” (the artist cited in Richard D. Marshall, Ed Ruscha, London 2003, p. 239). Ruscha began painting the snowy mountains at the turn of the millennium, borrowing the rugged, magnificent landscapes from magazines illustrations and photographs. The mountains are geographically neutral, and are defined solely by whatever words, letters, or numbers Ruscha chooses to paint over them.
In the present work, the monumental “Nth” is emblazoned across the mountain and sky like a surrealist’s reimagining of the iconic Hollywood sign, the black of the letters in stark contrast to the white snow. The title and titular characters play a visual and semiotic trick. “Nth” is frequently used to denote the last item in a long series; set against the backdrop of the mountain, “Nth” could imply a proximity to the summit, yet the letters are mysteriously placed at an unknown height. Only the letters “th” have peaked, and are perched beside the top of the “N” in the upper right corner of the work. Though the solid black lines over the stone mountain could weigh down the composition, there is sense of lightness; the letters ascend the image like hikers. The background, while visually complementing the dark letters, complicates their meaning; the longer one considers the relationship between image and text the more surreal the painting becomes. “On close examination, Ruscha's super-real, photographic mountains break up into a complex series of little flat planes of color, similar to a paint-by-number kit or the methods used by billboard painters. The natural appearance of the mountains is only an illusion; rather, Ruscha gives us the 'idea' of a mountain. These works suggest [. . .] that the landscape is the product of our culture and conventions, not the other way round.” (Neal Benezra quoted in Exh. Cat., Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Ed Ruscha: 2000-2002, p. 174).
To the Nth Degree evokes a desire of exploration. “Nth” is unknown—that is why it is denoted with a non-numerical “n”—but it seeks to be known. The serene mountain recalls the Romanticism of the American Dream and of the Manifest Destiny aspirations so historically tied to the Californian landscape. Ruscha wittily displays here his mastery of both the traditions of art history and contemporary visual culture, presenting a landscape seemingly defined by what it is not and a “number” defined by what it will be.
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